By Sara Gomez Armas
Kyiv, Apr 3 (EFE).- For eight years, a Ukrainian troupe has been using a former World War II bomb shelter as a space to put on their English-language plays but little did they know the armored basement was destined to reclaim its original function.
Legend has it that the building located in the Kyiv district of Shevchenkivs’kyi was used by the secret police of Nazi Germany to carry out interrogations. Now it permanently shelters 20 members of the ProEnglish Theater that also decided to take refuge in art to alleviate their anxiety as the Russian invasion of their country continues.
Russian troops have pulled back from around Kyiv; however, the war is still raging in the eastern part of Ukraine.
“Keeping the theater alive was not a premeditated decision, it was more a feeling that it was the right thing to do. In times like this, to stay mentally healthy, you have to follow the most basic instincts, which led us to the theater,” Anabel Sotelo, a Ukrainian actress of Nicaraguan origin, tells Efe.
Two weeks ago, the group rehearsed and performed Harold Pinter’s The New World Order, which was seen live by residents of the neighborhood.
“We started out just doing something we liked. But then we realized that every time we rehearse, and even on opening day, an aura is generated that covers the entire space, transforms it and makes it safe. It’s a kind of therapy,” Sotelo says.
The theater also welcomed dozens of residents taking shelter from nearby bombardments. Up to 50 people came to spend several nights there, including families with children, and even cats.
“Coexistence is very interesting. On the one hand, it’s like a camp, with fixed hours, we eat together, we play the guitar, we watch movies. It seems festive, but at the same time everyone understands why they are here.
“It’s a double reality, you don’t know which one to choose, whether war or life,” says Sotelo, who has been living there for 39 days.
Sotelo will star in Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, the upcoming play they plan to perform later this week.
“The idea of this work is that art can save lives in all contexts. That is what we feel here when making art. It is a self-reflection at the same time, which is therapeutic,” she explains.
Tania Shelepko is one of the troupe’s directors and a fellow refugee. She fled Kyiv on the first day of the onslaught when the explosions jolted her awake in the middle of the night, but she decided to return.
“I left Kyiv with my sister for 4 or 5 days but emotionally it was very hard to be away. Not to be in the place where you are supposed to be. So we came back,” says Shelepko. Since her house is near Irpin, one of the hardest-hit areas around Kyiv, she decided to take shelter at the ProEnglish Teather headquarters.
“I tried to go home twice but being close to Irpin and military targets, the missiles kept falling, and the sirens were exceptionally loud there. The last time I was there the walls were shaking. I grabbed the basics and came to the theater.” she adds.
Shelepko points out that the theater serves as a catharsis for the traumatic events they are experiencing.
“The theater is what makes me feel alive, makes me human. It is very difficult to maintain humanity in a war. Every Russian measure against Ukraine has the purpose of dehumanizing. It always has the goal of destroying culture, education and everything that has the Ukrainian essence,” concludes the 31-year-old artist. EFE